Friday, March 07, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Nebraska (2013) ****

R, 115 min.
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan

Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” tells the story of an elderly man who thinks he’s won a million dollars from a magazine subscription service company located in Lincoln, Nebraska. He doesn’t trust the mail so he’s intent on walking to Nebraska from his hometown in Billings, Montana to collect. Despite his family’s insistence to him that the letter he received is a scam, he’s determined to collect his winnings. Finally, his youngest son relents and offers to drive him to Lincoln, if only to shut him up about it.

Like his “About Schmidt”, this is another one of Alexander Payne’s observational comedies about aging in the unique landscape of America. Filmed in black and white, these characters remind me a little of the ones that inhabited the blue-collar films of Eagle Pannell. Like Pannell’s heroes, Bruce Dern’s old man here is a hard drinker who has lived a salt of the Earth life and now dreams of one unlikely victory over the insignificant mark he’s left. SNL alum Will Forte has the significant role of the son who is willing to entertain the old man’s fantasy. Another comedian, Bob Odenkirk, plays the more resistant and resentful older son. June Squibb is the near abusive mother with her no nonsense, done with it all criticisms on pretty much everything. There’s a shocking moment late in the film when she actually has nothing negative to say about someone.

As a transplant to the Midwest, I found the small town and extended family characterizations quite accurate in the way everyone starts with a smile on their face and open arms and devolves into what the world owes them. These are nice people, who’ve lived hard lives and have little to show for it at the end of it all. Some can accept that, while others feel the need to seize every opportunity to become something more, however unlikely or even undeserved.

The black and white photography is right for the mood and the setting of the film. The vast Midwestern plains landscape is beautiful in black and white, which also brings out the mentality of the area. The grays are there, but you have to look harder to see them in a world where everything seems black and white to those who built it for themselves.

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